The Changing Face of English Football Grounds

Photo I took at Old Trafford in 1988

Since the start of the 1990’s, following the Taylor Report which banned terracing in the top 2 divisions in England and then the launch of the Premier League and Sky Sports, English football grounds have undergone a remarkable and most dramatic era of change in the last 2 decades. The majority of the stadiums have been radically redeveloped and nearly 30 of the 92 League clubs have left their stadiums, to move to new purpose built stadiums. For safety and commercial reasons these changes were inevitable, especially with the increasing popularity of English football being brought about with the increased television coverage led by Sky Sports. As a Manchester United supporter over this period of time, I have been able to witness this transformation first hand. Firstly, at Old Trafford – which has undergone a huge re-development. This really began with the demolition of the Stretford End in 1992 and its replacement – the West Stand. In 1995 – bigger changes followed with the huge North Stand being built. Following our Treble victory in 1999, East and West Stand tiers 2 were built and then in 2005 the Quadrants were built. The result is a magnificent 75,000+ stadium – one of the best in world football. As part of this, corporate hospitality was massively increased and that now forms a large part of the matchday revenue. The downside to this – with the huge price rises and loss of terraces, has meant that many supporters have been priced out of watching the team they love and it is also said that the atmosphere in the stadium isn’t the same anymore. United are not the only team to have suffered a similar loss in atmosphere . At many stadiums this has been far worse, especially with teams who have moved to new stadiums.

Watching United at away games has changed so much for United supporters during this period, with so many stadiums being re-built and a significant number being demolished to make way for new stadiums altogether. The thing United’s match going away fans have to be most thankful for though, is that the atmosphere in the away sections still remains very passionate at our matches. We stand at every away game, sell out all our allocations of tickets and spend the majority of all the matches singing and supporting the team – something we should be very proud of. There have been some really memorable experiences at those games, including some at stadiums which no longer exist. Listed below are some of the ‘lost’ football grounds and some memories of watching United there.

Highbury Stadium – Arsenal

Highbury Stadium as it is today

Highbury was a really traditional and historic stadium, no matter what your views are on Arsenal FC – especially with the East and West Stands at the stadium which had been there for so long, along with the traditional marble halls by the players’ and directors’ entrance too. Fans in the stadium, particularly in the lower areas were so close to the action and the noise generated by home and away fans seemed to remain in the stadium. Unfortunately for Arsenal, by the time redevelopments were complete in the stadium, capacity had been reduced from 60,000 in the mid-1980’s to less than 40,000 with no real possibility to expand. It meant that the club were potentially turning away up to 20,000 fans for each game and in addition corporate facilities were limited severely – only those executive boxes with a balcony at the top of the Clock End Stand. As a result, in 2006 Arsenal moved to the new Emirates Stadium with a capacity of 60,000, only a few streets away. They remained in the area, but the new stadium, very similar to Benfica’s Stadium of Light, did not have the same history that Highbury did and also questions remain about the atmosphere. Highbury, meanwhile – maintained the old East and West Stands, with the area being converted to luxury apartments. At United away games now, when we arrive at Arsenal tube Station, if we have time, we still have a look around where the old ground was for old times’ sake.

Favourite Highbury Match I saw – the 4-2 win there in February 2005 – brilliant night game, atmosphere and result, plus seeing the tunnel incident between Keane and Viera being shown on the giant TV screens in the corner of the stadium.

Most unusual Highbury Memory – going there in November 1992, soon after we’d signed Cantona and where the North Bank was being rebuilt, a giant mural of fans had been painted, to make up for no fans being there.

The Dell – Southampton

Any football fan that visited this stadium will know what a truly unique stadium it was. It was also possibly the tightest stadiums you could visit and you were literally on top of the players. Following the Taylor Report, Southampton rebuilt the stands behind each goal as best they could given the severe lack of space, and they also put seats in along the sides of the pitch. The Dell only held 15,000 after this work though – nowhere near enough for then Premier League club Southampton. As a result they left The Dell in 2001 – moving to St Mary’s Stadium. The club never had the same luck at St Mary’s and were relegated from the top flight in 2005. The tight Dell Stadium wasn’t the easiest place for away teams to go to – as United fans found in the 1990’s on several occasions – which wasn’t the case at St Mary’s by comparison.

Favourite Dell Match I saw  – April 2000 – watching United clinch their 13th League Title there – great atmosphere – singing ‘this time in 2nd gear, we won the Football League again’ and ‘every single one of us, loves Alex Ferguson’ getting it’s 1st proper rendition at a match.

Most unusual The Dell Memory – the obvious one. April 1996. Grey kit. I remember that day well – we were all unhappy that we were losing badly and then the team running out for the 2nd half, having changed at half time from that awful grey kit to the blue and white one. We all had to laugh and cheer that happening – it would never be forgotten, especially with opposition fans reminding us of that.

Filbert Street – Leicester City

Like Southampton, Leicester had the same problem that their stadium was no longer big enough following re-development and they could not expand the stadium anymore. Filbert Street was popular with away fans, as the away section ran along the side of the pitch and you were really close to the players. Plus there was a low roof, so it generated lots of noise there. After the game there were always some scuffles between home and away fans in the streets outside the stadium, so it always felt like an old style away ground. Leicester left Filbert Street in 2002, moving to the new Walkers Stadium – not far away from where Filbert Street was. We have visited this new Stadium only once so far, in 2003 – a great performance from Ruud van Nistelrooy. The new Walkers Stadium is almost exactly the same as St Mary’s Stadium, in my view.

Favourite Filbert Street Memory – 3-0 win there in October 2000 – David Beckham and Gary Neville stood behind us in the away section, loving the atmosphere and celebrating with us – they got lots of respect for that.

Ayresome Park – Middlesbrough and The Baseball Ground – Derby County

Riverside Stadium, with original gates from Ayresome Park in front

I’m combining these 2 because I feel that both of these clubs new stadiums – The Riverside and Pride Park are virtually the same as each other and one copied the other’s ideas when they were designed. By comparison, both of their old grounds had their own individual character. Sadly, both were showing their age by the mid-1990’s and would need completely rebuilding. It was seen as much easier for both to move to new Stadiums.

Favourite Ayresome Park Memory – League Cup Semi-Final 1st Leg 1992 – great atmosphere and a big United away following that night.

Favourite Baseball Ground Memory – september 1996 – Roy Keane, sat on 1st row of the upper tier of our away section, United fans spending virtually the whole game singing to him. Our last visit to that stadium.

Strangest Baseball Ground Memory – August 1989 – Following a great start to the season with a 4-1 win over Arsenal – United took a huge following there and the Derby stewards couldn’t cope with the numbers, meaning United fans spilled out onto pitch. It was left to the supposed new club owner, Michael Knighton coming over to the away fans and telling them all to calm down. He actually got a decent reception from us, as the real truth about him had yet to emerge.

Burnden Park – Bolton

By the mid 1990’s Burnden Park was really showing its age and the only development being done was the shocking construction of a Normid Superstore that took up over half of one of the stands behind the goal – that can’t have been good for the Bolton fans to witness. So, moving to the new Reebok Stadium in Horwich, in 1997 must have been welcomed, especially as this stadium had it’s own individual design, rather than the huge similarities which were seen at the likes of Pride Park and The Riverside.

Favourite Burnden Park Ground memory – February 1996 – seeing United win 6-0 there. Brilliant performance and a great atmosphere, stood on the terraces behind the goals. Best chant of the day, in reference to the Normid Superstore built next to us – ‘down with the shopping, You’re going down with the shopping!’

Strangest Burnden Park Memory – I made a one off trip there in 1995 to see my hero Bryan Robson playing professional football one last time for Middlesbrough. Robson got lots of abuse, as did Clayton Blackmore also in the Boro team that day from the Bolton fans because of their time at United.

Roker Park – Sunderland

Like other grounds, Roker Park was showing its age and capacity was down to 22,000, with a large part being terracing and little room to expand. Moving to the new Stadium of Light was the only realistic option. The famous ‘Roker Roar’ (the atmosphere in the stadium) would be no more. I was at United’s last 3 matches there – 2 bad results – losing in the league in 1990 and 1997, but winning an FA Cup replay in 1996 – so I have mixed feelings about that ground for that. United generally have a good record at the Stadium of Light by comparison.

Highfield Road – Coventry City

When I heard that Coventry were leaving this stadium in 2005, I was surprised as Coventry had done a good job of re-developing Highfield Road from 1993 onwards and it was a decent stadium. However, it clearly must have made sense financially to re-locate to the Ricoh Arena. As United have not played at the new stadium, I cannot comment much on this stadium, having only seen glimpses of it when driving past on the M6. Highfield Road was popular with United fans thanks to a pub called The Sky Blue Tavern right by the away section, plus we always got a decent ticket allocation, with great views along the side of the pitch. Roy Keane used to like going there too – I met him twice in the away section there – in 1995 and 1997 – that probably went some way to why he praised our away support as he spent time in there when he was out injured.

Favourite Highfield Road Memory – April 1993 – 1-0 win with a Denis Irwin goal – on the way to our 1st Title for 26 years. There must have been about 12,000 United fans there that day – they were in every stand.

Maine Road – Man City

This stadium had a lot of significance for United fans, as it was used for a number of home matches after Old Trafford was bombed during the Second World War and then for European home matches until floodlights were built at Old Trafford. Maine Road still holds the record for an English League match attendance – 83,260 for Man Utd vs Arsenal in January 1948. It also was the venue for Man Utd’s record club victory – 10-0 over Anderlecht in September 1956. As well as this, United had some great FA Cup Semi-final replay victories there in 1985, 1990 and 1994. Although the stadium once held such high numbers, the developments over the years were not planned properly and by City’s final season there in 2002-03 it held around 33,000. This was not helped by the fact that the 4 stands on each side of the stadium were all completely different from each other – something United fans always used to enjoy commenting on there. City had plans to extend the stadium to over 45,000 – building above existing stands on 3 sides of the ground and filling in corners. Instead of this, they  took over Manchester’s Commonwealth Games Stadium and increasing it’s capacity to 48,000 – removing the athletics track, putting in extra seats and filling in the stadium. This move earned the stadium the nickname of the ‘Council House’ by United fans for the way City got the stadium. Had Manchester got the Olympics in 2000, (losing out to Sydney in the final decision) this would have been an 80,000 stadium on the site of the current one. There were even rumours at the time of the Olympic bid that if it was successful, United and City would share the stadium after the games (Old Trafford at the time held around 44,000). That would have created a lot of conflict, as groundsharing isn’t a popular notion in this country, unlike in Italy for the Milan, Rome and Genoa teams for example.

Favourite Maine Road Memory (for matches against City) – Our comeback victory to win 3-2 there in November 1993 after being 2-0 down at half-time. Won with a great winning goal by Roy Keane.

Worst maine Road Memory – shared equally between the 5-1 defeat there in September 1989 and losing 3-1 there in November 2002 in the final Manchester Derby to be played there. Bad memories.

There are other stadiums that I’ve been to watching United, that are no longer there – for cup ties and non- 1st team games. These are – Reading’s Elm Park (great FA Cup tie in 1996 – Paul Parker goal and a shocking Steve Bruce miss), Stoke City’s Britannia Stadium (League Cup defeat in 1993 and a hostile atmosphere) and Wigan’s Springfield Park. All now just memories, as they all play in modern, new stadia. In addition there is Wembley Stadium. Although it was criticised for its poor facilities and the amount of seats with bad views – that was a truly historic stadium for United fans. As United fans, we witnessed great FA Cup Final wins, a League Cup Final win and Charity Shield wins there and most of all for winning the 1968 European Cup Final at Wembley. The new Wembley is an impressive stadium, especially after the time and cost of building it, but it still doesn’t have the history of the old Wembley. That’s the trade off between old and new stadiums.

Currently in the Premier League – some more teams have plans to move to new stadiums. Leading the way are West Ham United who are planning to go to the Olympic stadium in London, although Tottenham are questioning this decision. Tottenham also have plans for a new stadium next to their current White Hart Lane Stadium. Liverpool have been intending to start building their new stadium for years now on Stanley Park – nothing has started though. Everton have also looked at moving to King’s Dock in the City Centre and then to Kirby – both plans falling through, as they remain at their traditional stadium – Goodison Park. For me, personally I’m glad that United have remained at Old Trafford and so far the owners have not looked at naming rights to Old Trafford. Our history on that site is something we should be hugely proud of.

About Steve Ferguson 886 Articles
Steve Ferguson had taken over & re-branded The Faithful MUFC website back in the summer of 2014 and is now the owner and editor of the site. Steve, from Ashton-Under-Lyne in Greater Manchester, is a 35-year-old life long Manchester United fan, travelling over the globe to see the Reds play. Steve has been lucky enough to be at both the 1999 and 2008 Champions League finals, seeing Manchester United lift the biggest trophy in the World, none more exciting than that faithful night in Barcelona in 99. The website is a blog, but also hopes to deliver the latest Manchester United news from around the internet too, linked up with our growing twitter account which is @TheFaithfulMUFC, give it a follow as we will follow you back as soon as we can.

1 Comment

  1. I have been a utd fan since the 80’s and have followed the changes with the stadium and the supporters. There was no atmosphere as good as the Stretford End when fans were able to stand, and sang their hearts out throughout the games, the nearest thing to them days now are the away matches where all fans become one big group representing the true spirit of the Utd Fans. The home matches are a different story altogether, So many day trippers are now taking over the seat as true fans have been priced out of the stadium. I have no grudge against day trippers as that was how I became a Utd Fan in the 80’s. I was taken to a match for the first time ever and was instantly hooked and became a member, following Utd to away games too. My only grudge with the day trippers is they cant sing, I feel like i should hand out song sheets to them, you get odd groups trying to get the trippers to join in but its hopeless and annoying when you can hear the away fans cheering on their team louder than the home fans. All the singing died when they dismantled the Stretford standing area and placed the fans in different sections of the ground. I was moved to the North Lower till they decided to build that up where I was then moved to L Stand (the away section now). Although back in the Stretford end top tier, the olden days of the Stretford End are gone.

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